Chief outlines first responder plan

By Brandon Evans | Published Wednesday, October 10, 2012

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A Monday night workshop cleared up a few questions on how a small paid unit of first responders could help provide additional daytime coverage to the city of Rhome.

But in the end, it left more questions than answers as to how the city will proceed.

Rhome Fire Department Chief Robert Pratt suggested the city could hire one full-time first responder and two part-time first responders. They would be the city’s own EMS officers, stationed at the fire department. The first responders would work during 8 a.m. to 5 p.m Monday through Friday. They would also have to be members of the volunteer fire department.

“If a fire happened, one of the first responders on duty could clock out and respond as a firefighter,” Pratt explained. “It would be just like any other city employee clocking out to fight a fire. The other one would stay on duty as EMS.”

This type of system would save the city the extra money and effort that goes into having a paid fire department.

The discussion has started as the city’s volunteer fire department has dwindled to six members, most of them working in the Metroplex. During normal workdays, the city is often left with no one to respond to calls.

“I had zero no-shows in 2011,” Pratt said. “We had five or six last month alone. We’ve had to wait for Wise County medics to arrive from Boyd or Decatur. We’ve had to wait for firefighters to arrive from Newark for daytime grass fires.”

Pratt said having first responders in town and ready could save as much as eight minutes or more in response time, which could mean the world to someone suffering a heart attack or trapped inside a wrecked vehicle or burning home.

Council members in attendance tended to agree.

“This town is growing with the number of heart patients,” said council member Louis Godfrey. “I have a pacemaker. If it goes out at any time, I will have a massive heart attack. I don’t want to have to wait 11 minutes or more for help to arrive. If you’re having a heart attack, you can’t afford to wait that long.”

“The majority of people who move here don’t know this,” said council member Michelle Pittman. “They think you call 911 and someone shows up in a few minutes. I’m worried if we don’t address this somebody is going to die. Who wants to be responsible for that?”

Former council member David Wilson questioned if it was worth the tax dollars to pay for first responders who might have to take most of their calls outside of city limits.

“I’ve always had a contingency plan to leave someone behind,” Pratt said. “I’ve never left the city unprotected.”

Wilson added that the city averaged less than one call in city limits per day last year.

“That’s the nature of it,” Pratt answered. “Some days we have zero calls, and other days we have a dozen.”

Jerry Taylor, a Rhome resident and longtime member of Newark’s Volunteer Fire Department, said he didn’t support going to paid members, but he might support incentives.

Mayor Chris Moore said paying volunteer firefighters $5, $10 or $15 per call might add incentive to grow their volunteer base. He said that was one idea they were looking at.

“What I can’t understand is why Rhome has some of the best equipment in the county besides Decatur and we can’t get more volunteers,” said Rhome resident and park board member Ronnie Moore. “Newark has 28 volunteers. We have a city with 1,800 people and we can’t get enough volunteers. Where’s the problem at? Newark’s not having a problem.”

Pratt said finding volunteers is a widespread problem, not just in Rhome, but all over. He also said they have high standards and expect volunteers to respond to at least 25 percent of the calls.

“A lot of people just want to drive the engine and go to one big fire,” Pratt said. “That’s not fair to my other guys who have to work all day and still get up at 2 a.m. to go to a medical call.”

Pratt added that the paid first responder positions could add incentive for more volunteers to join if they knew a paid position might open up for them.

Moore stressed that, “Nothing is written in stone … Tonight we’re just getting our feet wet. We’re going to have to do some research. We’ve got some homework to do.”

“And we’ve got to consider the budget before we do anything,” council member Jo Ann Wilson added.

Rhome’s next regular council meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m., Thursday, at City Hall. They also expect to have more workshops on the fire department in the coming weeks and months.

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